Doris Lessing & Miss Lydgate, by Ben Jeapes

Doris Lessing’s quote about accepting second-best being a sin, copied on the front cover of the most recent Christian Writer, generated a lot of conversation on the ACW pages. I wondered what she would make of Miss Lydgate.

Miss Lydgate is an Oxford academic in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, whose endless tinkering on her monolithic History of Prosody - with twelve different typefaces and labyrinthine footnotes - has become the stuff of legend. (‘“She’s suddenly thought of a new appendix.” “Oh no!” cried the Dean. “Alas, yes! …”’) When the proofs are finally delivered to the printers it is almost as much a matter of celebration for the Senior Common Room as the fact that Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey have identified the villain of the piece. (‘“I'm almost positive I heard a faint voice crying from the window about a footnote on page 97 - but I pretended not to hear.”’)

I used to work in academic publishing and have met a great number of Miss Lydgates: ever revising, trying to make concrete the pure vision that exists only in their heads. But while Miss Lydgate was writing a scholarly work - which ought to be watertight - the same attitude can prevail in fiction writers too.

Where does the balance lie? Miss Lydgate would doubtless agree with Doris Lessing about second-best; Doris Lessing would probably tell Miss Lydgate to just publish the blasted thing. Can the spirit of perfectionism itself lead to imperfection?

Let’s take our cue from the Master Creator. Genesis tells us that “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Which includes: continents that would continue to shift into new shapes over millennia, causing volcanoes and earthquakes along the way; an environmental sensitivity and systems of sexual reproduction and random mutation that will cause some species to go extinct and others to evolve; bacteria that can be advantageous to one species and cause a deadly plague in another … God and Miss Lydgate would not have seen eye to eye.

But God built flexibility into his world. He wanted a place where stories could develop, all the while that his own ineffable plan was ineffabling in the background.

If you as author want to dictate every last nuance of your world down to the smallest detail, so that the reader is trammelled only into your vision and nothing else, write a TV script. Otherwise, give it some wiggle room. Let the framework be sufficiently loose that the readers’ imaginations can run wild. They will do a better job of filling in the blanks between stated facts than you ever will. Instead of creating just one world for all time, you create one world per reader, which is a lot more. If you can learn to let go of it.

Yes, yes, you say, but how do you do this? Oh darn, my word count is up.

[All quotes are from Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers.]

Ben Jeapes took up writing in the mistaken belief that it would be easier than a real job (it isn’t). Hence, as well as being the author of 5 novels and co-author of many more, he has also been a journal editor, book publisher and technical writer.


  1. That's a really interesting take on it, Ben, and takes some of the pressure off getting it 'perfect' (as in, trying to achieve the impossible). I also love your turn of phrase: 'his own ineffable plan was ineffabling in the background' is the kind of grammatical messing-about I love.

  2. Thank you - I spent a long time trying to think of the right verb that describes "being ineffable", and finally hit on this one, in the spirit of the post!

  3. This is a great post. It's so hard to strike a balance between the aim for excellence (always subjective anyway) and the need to let go. But I think you sum it up perfectly :)


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